Who are all these people surprised by the long tail?

Congrats to Mr Anderson on what appears to be a rather successful, if not Type 1 (or 2, depending upon your perspective), launch of his book “The Long Tail.” There are still some issues around this concept that surprise me.

First, who are all these people somehow surprised, intrigued and otherwise previously inexperienced with this long tail? Anyone who spends their time online lives in the tail for the majority of their lives – search engines, eBay, Amazon, music services, etc. The premise of web retailing, in fact, was to bring to the market those items that could not survive as inventory in a FMCG (fast-moving-consumer-goods) retail market full of Walmarts. You live in the long tail as you drive down a street and pass reems on restaurants and storefronts that are not chains. You are brutally introduced to the tail when you attend a crafts/flea market.

Second, where is the theory. A wise professor once told me that theory is not fact. Which seems odd seeing that the scholarly types are expected to tell us how the world is. But once something is clearly going on, its no longer a theory. Also, theory is not a prediction, but a relationship among/between things. Basic economics would suggest that increasing the number of substitute products in a marketplace will alter the market itself. So how is the long tail a new theory? Beyond basic economic, how will more things change a marketplace? Or is the Long Tail really a phenomenon, with a clean name, that is becoming most compelling thanks to information networks?

Finally, I reckon we are going to be more surprised by the nature of hits than simple conclusions like many top down hits will be smaller and bottom up hits will be bigger. In this opinion, I may align with Nick Carr– but for different reasons. Larger tails will make competition even more fierce. Fierce competition will add further fuel a situation in which, quite alarmingly, only the biggest of the hits will survive. Essentially, those living the tail will suffer more, while an ever smaller number of those in the Head will make money.

Examples: iTunes. iTunes would appear to control 80%, or more, of the digital retail music market. That’s not a very friendly looking tail for those other folks making digital music stores and services. Blogs – an absolutely tiny proportion of weblogs capture the very great majority of financial, and prestigial compensation. Some might disagree, but I think I only need to insight the roughly tens of millions of weblogs online. The number might actually approach 100 million at this point in time, if I include personal blogs within MySpace.

Either way, we shall see how the Zipf curve, in its most-marketed incantation, plays out.


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